Disclaimer: I’m mostly talking about YA here. I can probably count on one hand how many adult fantasies I’ve read in the last decade, although none of those few had men for their MCs, either.
I truly don’t think that if I had to put together a top ten fantasy books that feature men MCs, I’d be able to do it. I know that there was a conscious shift in fantasy to star women more often than not, and don’t get me wrong, I love it. There are so many badass women characters in fantasy now than there ever was when I was growing up. I have so much hope for our future because there are so many incredible characters for young children to look up to, for little girls to see themselves reflected in characters wielding swords and throwing punches. It’s a shift that was very much needed, and while I’ve appreciated most of my fantasy books being women-led, the shift definitely went from zero to sixty with no in between.
And that bums me out. Because while yes, little boys should also look up to these fierce women, they deserve to see themselves in media, too. I feel like this is going to be misconstrued really easily because what I’m looking for is not men being represented in media, they see that enough, thanks, but I would like more boys/men starring in YA fantasy.
Look, I know this is not a popular opinion, and I’m sure I’m going to get some and you call yourself a feminist looks from the trolls, but I’m tired. Really and truly exhausted of the fierce, independent, badass woman fantasy lead. Do you really want to know why I’ve been talking about Katy Rose Pool’s The Age of Darkness series so damn much this year? Because not only does it star boy MCs, its girls are also exhausted. Ephyra has just had enough of everything, and while she is a badass, she’s very much do I have to be? about it. Gods, and the amount of times Anton just wants to take a nap and pretend nothing is happening. Perhaps the only character that actually fits the tired trope of too kool for skool is Hassan, who gets very hoity toity about everything. Even Jude is too stoic to fit into the general aesthetic of holier than thou.
Because that, at its heart, is probably why I don’t want women-led fantasy anymore. And I haven’t for a while! I keep reading them because I love fantasy, and I love women, and I’m going to read both of those forever, but I’d also really like a healthy balance of men, too. Because, somehow, every time there’s a divide between men and women as MCs in fantasy, there’s suddenly also no more of the I don’t need anyone but myself vibe that so many women-led fantasies have. We don’t all need to be badasses! We could just cry and whine and mope about for a bit like Laia in An Ember in the Ashes! That series works so well because Laia is just so realistic. I get you, girl. I feel that vibe. I, too, would like to cry.
I’m just–okay, Claire Legrand is a really good example. I have such a fraught relationship with the Empirium series in that I don’t actually like it, but I keep reading it, and I’m not entirely sure why. Don’t ask, I can’t explain it. I truly despise the two main girls so much. They’re the worst. Rielle is overdramatic, incompetent, violent but blames it on everyone else, and just ughhhhhhh. (At the end of my Furyborn review, I said that I should probably stop reviewing it because I was just getting angrier as I went, and it’s already happening here!) Eliana is a whole other bucket of nope. She’s rude but expects kindness, refuses help from everyone, sways violently between manic emotions, and is also just ughhhhh. I hate them both so much, and this book isn’t even really a good example because I also hate all of the boys in this, too, but I probably would have hated them less if we’d gotten to see more of them.
A really strange example is Margaret Rogerson. I love both Sorcery of Thorns and An Enchantment of Ravens. I five-starred both of them, I think they were each on their respective years for top ten favorites, and I want to reread both of them. But the two MCs, Elisabeth & Isobel, are very different. Elisabeth is the perfect example of a girl MC that I thoroughly enjoy. She fails a lot, she’s grateful for rest, and she readily accepts help. Isobel, on the other hand, keeps herself closed off from almost everyone, kinda gets into some instalove with Rook, and then just falls apart for a solid portion of the book before she suddenly gets all can’t touch this. Isobel, despite how much I love her, is definitely an example of a character that I’m exhausted with. While Enchantment definitely needs to be told from Isobel’s POV, much like The Cruel Prince needs to be told from Jude’s, you know what I’d have loved even more? A book in either Rook or Cardan’s POV.
(Wow, actually, I take that back, that made it sound like I like Cardan, and he is an Asshole™.)
This is a weird post, I realize, because who is ever actually going to advocate for more men as MCs in fantasy? Well, a lot of people, I think, because I’ve slowly been seeing this whispered through social media. But I don’t want more men because I want less women. Actually, I’d really like a strong balance of both! Give me more Destiny Soria, who consistently gives us strong female characters with strong male characters, but still makes all of them screw up! Give me more Lei & Wren, yes, but also more Nikolai. I want Khalid chapters with Shahrzad chapters.
I guess the title of this post is both misleading and not. Because yes, I do want more male MCs in fantasy, but I also want the same amount of female MCs that we’re getting. I’d just, you know, like to do away with the strong trope. Women don’t need to be strong to lead a story, and it’s starting to teeter into toxic positivity the more that we write them that way. One of the reasons that I love DOSAB so much is that Karou often just cannot continue on. She needs periods of rest and recuperation. She gets angry and exhausted. She’s real. Sylvie from Amber & Dusk by Lyra Selene is not.
At the end of the day, feminism is just about equality. It’s not “women are more important than men,” but “everyone is important.” Yes, it’s layered heavily with women’s rights because women are not equal to men, but it’s not saying that we should bring down men just to uplift women. And that’s not what I’m saying here, either! There is a disparity in fantasy, which came from another disparity. Fantasy was overwhelmed with male MCs, so we started writing only female MCs. But that’s not really an answer.
I want both. I want Theyen wearily coming to Sirscha’s aid in Lori M. Lee’s Forest of Souls not because she needs it, but because they’re friends, and they owe it to each other to help and support each other. And I want Sirscha accepting that aid because she knows that she needs a little boost up, but not being mad that it’s coming from a boy. I want chapters being devoted to Zafira and Nasid. I want to see what my favorite boy, Altair al-Badawi, is up to just as much as I want to witness the glory that is Kifah. I want all of it. Give me girls and boys. More men, yes, but keep the women, too.